Sticky cotton perception hard to shake

Some of the finest Far West cotton comes from the fields around Yuma, Ariz., yet some textile mill cotton contracts are still drawn excluding cotton from that area because of sticky cotton that came from the area almost a decade ago.

Bill Winburne, president of Handwerker-Winburne, Inc., a Phoenix, Ariz., cotton merchandising firm, said the perception of sticky cotton continues to hang — unfairly — over Arizona cotton, even though he said growers long ago turned back the pest that caused the problem and have vowed never to let it come back again.

Winburne made his remarks as second vice president of the American Cotton Shippers Association (ASCA) was addressing this year's Western Cotton Conference, sponsored by the Western Cotton Shippers Association (WCSA). Winburne is a former WCSA president.

He followed to the podium California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association president Earl Williams who gave his tough-talking, no-sticky-cotton speech to merchants.

Winburne, a long-time Arizona cotton marketer, said Arizona cotton for the most part is honeydew-free. “Growers remain vigilant, and they don't intend for the whitefly to get the upper hand again. Recent crops have been good quality, with only a few exceptions. But, we are dealing with those,” said Winburne.

Sticky cotton blitz

The veteran cotton merchant praised California's high profile blitz to clean up the sticky cotton before it can cause the “wreck” that befell Arizona cotton from 1992-95.

“Part of the problem, I think, was that we drug our feet before we did anything about it (silverleaf whitefly) and hoped it would solve itself. It didn't,” he said.

Arizona cotton producers have regained control of their destiny, thanks to an aggressive control program and exceptional stewardship in using a pair of insect growth regulators that continue to be the cornerstone of its pest management effort to prevent sticky cotton.

While Arizona sticky cotton perception remains in some quarters, it has gone away in others. Arizona's reputation has been so restored in some quarter that there are unconfirmed reports that some Arizona-California 2001 crop was substituted for SJV cotton last year because of the widespread sticky problem that surfaced last season in the San Joaquin.

It has become too pervasive in California's central valley that mill contracts are being drawn this year with anti-stickiness clauses. Some merchants have written contracts with growers heavily discounting sticky cotton or even refusing to accept it as delivery on the contract. That could create serious problems.

“If a growers agrees to deliver 500 bales of cotton to a merchants and it is sticky, the merchant can refuse to accept it,” said one merchant “This would mean the grower would still be obligated to deliver the cotton in the contract and he would have to buy it on the open market.”

Tattoo remains

Once the sticky cotton label is tattooed on a region, it is hard to remove. Winburne was upset with a comment by an University of Arizona entomologist in Western Farm Press earlier this summer who said failure of Arizona growers to control whitefly this season could be the end of the state's cotton industry.

The comments also made it to the National Cotton Council's Web site.

“The statement would have been true in 1996, but not today. Mills pick up those comments and the perception of sticky Arizona cotton jumps out again. It is like we shot ourselves in the same foot again,” said Winburne.

Williams once again issues his plea for a self-policing effort to prevent a sticky cotton repeat of 2001. “We do not want to go the mandatory route” complete with USDA classing discounts for sticky cotton.

“We have to separate non-believers. People who produce sticky cotton must be penalized” by the industry, Williams reiterated. “It takes only a few bad apple to run the reputation of an industry.”

Mills don't look at particular producers; they brand areas, gins and even merchants if sticky cotton is delivered. “All aspects of our industry are at risk.

“We have a ways to go get this crop to the marketplace,” said Williams, encouraging growers and others to be vigilant in preserving the valley's high quality cotton reputation by delivery honeydew-free cotton in 2002.

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